Last night during Donald Trump’s town hall meeting in Rochester, New Hampshire, a man shouted a question to the candidate that encapsulated much of the prevailing nativist sentiment driving the Trump bubble, a native sentiment we frequently find expressed in fringe history claims as well: “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.” Here Trump seemed to agree. “We have training camps growing when they want to kill us. My question: When can we get rid of them?” Although Trump’s handlers later walked back the candidate’s agreement with the questioner, saying only that Trump wanted to eliminate terrorist training camps, not all American Muslims, the comments were merely a blunter version of the same anti-Islamic sentiment Glenn Beck is currently promoting in his newest book, It Is About Islam: Exposing the Truth About Isis, Al Qaeda, Iran, and the Caliphate. We saw this notion that Muslims are somehow alien last week on Pirate Treasures of the Knights Templar, where Muslims were indirectly equated with being non-Western and non-American.
In his new book, Beck writes that “in America we like to believe that all religions are equal. But that’s not the truth.” Islam, he says, is an inferior religion that predisposes its adherents to Islamism and violent jihad. He calls for a rejuvenation of American Christianity as an antidote to Islamic extremism. In the very best fringe history style, he accuses the elite of a conspiracy to suppress the truth about the evils of Islam: “People do not want you to know that truth. They don’t want to hear it. They certainly don’t want to discuss it. The mainstream media has essentially ordered a blackout of anything remotely to do with it.” In his typically confused style, Beck specifies that Islamic extremism is not the same as Islam, and the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not trying to kill Americans. But then he says that these 1.49 billion of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims (to use his figures) are the “exception” and that in most countries the “vast majority of Muslims share the fundamentalist view that Islam is the only true religion and that it must be spread through any means necessary.” He concludes that Islam, as interpreted by the non-exception vast majority, is “incompatible with basic morals and decency.”
My purpose isn’t to criticize Beck for his hypocritical claim that Islam shouldn’t be a “political and governing force” but rather because it forms a mirror image to all the effort I’ve put into exploring Islamic and Arabic legends and lore over the past few months. Here is Beck discussing his methodology:
Islam is at the root of everything that terrorists from ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas say and do. Islam is the reason they have recruits. To argue that it has nothing to do with terrorism or violence is the equivalent of going back to the sixteenth century and telling Martin Luther that the corrupt actions of the Catholic Church had nothing to do with Christianity. If you take Islam out of ISIS, you have nothing left. They are called Islamists for a reason: their references to Islam—to what they call a holy war against our Roman Empire—are what help them gain recruits and money and support. […]
Now, as it happens, I have read the Quran as well as the Bible, and I would bet you dollars to doughnuts that if you put passages from both books side by side, the majority of Americans wouldn’t be able to distinguish between them. Indeed, so much of the Quran repeats stories familiar from the Bible and Judeo-Christian folklore that it is a wonder that Christians treat Muslims as wholly alien. (Early medieval Christians seem to have at first considered Islam a heretical Christian sect akin to Arianism.)
But what I can’t wrap my head around is the idea that there is something inherent in Islam that creates violent death cults dedicated to destroying Americans. For the past two months I have been translating the Akhbār al-zamān, an Islamic text from the Middle Ages, and the version of Islam represented in it is nothing at all like the evil fantasia Beck and nativists see. It’s hard for me to square the tolerant, curious, cosmopolitan culture represented in that text with the death cults Beck feels are a direct consequence of the Quran. The only thing I can conclude from this is that violent extremism isn’t inherent in Islam, any more than witch hunts (Exodus 22:18) and slavery (Leviticus 25:44-46) are inherent in Judaism and Christianity, but rather are a result of specific social, cultural, economic, and political forces, forces in this case unleashed by the political failures of Middle Eastern states. Actually, the witchcraft parallel is a good one: Charlemagne cited Exodus 22:18 as the basis for his anti-witch legislation (Admonitio generalis, Cap. 65), a form of which remained on the books for 1,000 years in Europe. At one point in the early modern period, the vast majority of Christians believed witches needed to be hunted down and killed, yet today you’d be hard-pressed to find any in the West who believe this (though Africa sadly remains another story).
Texts can be used to justify anything, given enough leeway in interpretation. Islamic extremists certainly seize on Quranic verses calling for violence against nonbelievers, but Beck and his ilk, in somehow lifting this modern interpretation to the level of Quranic command, ignore the fact that the Quran also commands Muslims to treat Christians and Jews (and Sabians) with tolerance and to leave them to their own devices, for they are protected by Allah (2:136-137; 22:17, etc.). All of them ignore the fact that Allah actually said that he really hated non-Abrahamic faiths, though even then Muslims worked hard to fit as many of them as possible (e.g., Hinduism) into the framework as possible, as political and cultural necessities dictated. When Muslims conquered India, suddenly Hindus were justified as “Peoples of the Book” and granted tolerance, but when India and Pakistan broke up, suddenly Hindus were once again declared infidels.
It’s really all in what you choose to excerpt, which means that the text itself isn’t to blame but the people who are using it for their own purposes.
Anyway, that was a very long introduction to the fact that I have finally finished my translation of the Akhbār al-zamān! It was a much bigger project than I had anticipated, but I got through all 400 pages of the text! The first part was really interesting, but the second half was a slog due to the stereotyped, stilted, and repetitive fictional histories concocted for made-up pharaohs. Almost all of them are variations on the same fixed set of elements: the pharaoh’s tax policy, his religion, his various palaces and statues, his dreams and their interpretation, his sex life, his handling of wars and coups, and his death. Occasionally, the author, too, apparently gets bored with the repetitiveness of it and copies whole pages from another book on a tangentially related topic. The one thing that the supposed “History of Time” is not is an actual history of anything, even a fake one. It’s a storybook of fables and romances.
I learned a few things, however: I learned that the story of Sūrīd building the Pyramids before the Flood has exceptionally little to do with either reality or Late Antique legend; the book is full of so many versions of the story attributed to so many kings that it becomes quite clear that it’s just one of many versions of the Islamic version of Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream. I also learned that there is an Arabic story that closely parallels the scene in Macbeth where “Birnam wood remove[s] to Dunsinane.” The similarity is so great that the French scholar who assembled the Akhbār manuscripts felt compelled to point out the impossibility of reading one without thinking of the other. Baron Carra de Vaux ought not to have been so surprised; both incidents derive from an original given in the Alexander Romance, where Alexander uses the trick against Darius and the Persians. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Akhbār, it’s that medieval writers sure liked to copy and recycle. I don’t think there is anything truly original in the entire book, and the most interesting parts for me were when bits of Late Antique Greek material showed through.
Well, that’s not true. The most interesting this was this description of what seems to be the author’s attempt to describe bats: “After crossing the country (in sub-Saharan Africa), the king arrived in a nation of monkeys who had very light wings without feathers, by which they flew.” So, it was either bats, or he found his way to Oz.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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